Thirty Things I Learned From EWB

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in the past couple of weeks … an exciting new opportunity (that I hope to share soon) has me looking back, and nostalgic about all the experiences that led me to where I am now.

I started this blog post a year and a half ago.  I’ve shared drafts with various people.  I’ve tried to shorten it.  But that wouldn’t do justice to ten formative, meaningful, and incredible years.

Looking back on the past decade, I realize I’ve seen quite a bit of Engineers Without Borders Canada – I’ve watched the organization grow, I’ve had friends come and go, I’ve shared in some fantastic successes, and I’ve seen the ugly underside (every organization has one!).

I’ve tried to take that experience, and compress it down into a series of tips for you – Francis’ Guide to Surviving EWB.

What you do matters

You got involved for a reason.  There was something in you, driving you to contribute your time.  Something about this cause stood out.  Hold onto that – because the world needs people like you.  The world needs your inspiration, your passion, your critical thinking, your love.

Many others have said it better: “never doubt a small group of people can change the world… indeed, it’s the only thing that has.” “If not you, who?” “Be the change you wish to see in the world.:  Over-used cliches, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

What you do matters.  We need you.

Be ridiculous


The issues you will confront can be difficult, heavy, and depressing.  They will drag you down, if you let them … so don’t.

Be ridiculous and embrace the energy.  Drop pumpkins.  Smash cars.  Walk with buckets of water through downtown in the middle of winter.

These are more than publicity stunts: they add energy and levity and fun.  They are as much for you as they are for the “outreach”.  Don’t rush to over-simplify; but don’t over-think either.

Buzzword Bingo – Acronyms – Language

I hate buzzwords and acronyms.  Buzzword Bingo was a favourite drinking game during certain long meetings (before I became staff, of course).  We love to hate our abundance of acronyms.

But they exist for a reason.  They capture the specific way we work and think and behave.  They are our common language.

(wow. I never thought I’d be defending acronyms … or at least, the judicious use of them.)

Money Matters

I hated fundraising, and I was mostly shielded from money worries.  I had my budget and I was on the spending side of the organization… but the money needs to come from somewhere.  And I took that for granted sometimes.

The sooner you realize and remember that money matters, the better you will be at managing it.  You’ll see the financial ups and downs coming, and you’ll be able to avoid crisis.

What matters can’t always be measured

We want to quantify things. To evaluate return-on-investment.  To be rigorous and data-based.  These are great ideals, but they can be rather difficult in our field.

Resist the urge to quantify everything, which (in my experience) often goes hand-in-hand with valuing immediate short-term gain. Play the long game. Trust in the future impact of your work, even if it isn’t immediately quantifiable. Have the patience to invest and nurture.

Value excitement-based decision making, because your passion and energy are major factors in your success.  Implement “impact points” to remind you of your ultimate goal.

The only constant is change

Cliche?  Sure.  But it’s true – so learn to roll with it.  At the same time, avoid change purely for the sake of change.


469865_10152375355795287_636271698_oLiving your values is easier in a community, and this is EWB’s biggest asset.  I cannot count the number of great people I have met over the years – friends, mentors, supports, colleagues, schemers.

Don’t take it for granted.


Avoid the archetype

In EWB, we put certain people on a pedestal. Certain traits and qualities are considered intrinsic to EWB culture… we value the charismatic leader, the entrepreneur, the ambitious risk-taker, the outspoken activist.

Maybe I am especially self-conscious because I don’t think I particularly embody any of those values… but, I now realize that doesn’t matter.  I like to think I’ve made my share of contributions and left my mark, in my own way.

So avoid the pressure to fit the EWB mould.  If you quietly get shit done – know that you are the backbone of the movement.  No one lives up to that superhero that we have built.  No one should have to.


Learn to tell good stories.  Learn to recognize potential stories in the midst of seemingly-boring events.  Hone your writing.  Blog as a way to work through your thoughts.

As much as we want to be rational, logical pragmatists… we still connect over stories.

Embrace Embarrassment

If you look back at who you were two years ago and are slightly embarrassed, that’s a good thing.  It means you have grown and changed.

Learn to treasure that personal growth.  We all go through it.

Be Authentic

Nothing matters more – and people can spot a phony a mile away.  And don’t fall into the trap of just putting on an authentic front.  There’s something captivating about a person who has the self-confidence to be really, truly authentic.

Avoid Africa-hype

Baobab-tree-in-sunsetI can understand the fixation people have with the continent of Africa; why, after spending a few months there, so many people long to go back.  After finally visiting last year, I see what all the fuss is about.  It is absolutely a beautiful, varied, fascinating continent with amazing people.

But you don’t need to go there to make a difference.  I went purely as a tourist (and loved it), and all my real impact has been done from here, in Canada, before I even stepped foot on the continent.


Some people push for more space – others fill the space they are given

Which type are you?

And, just as important, can you answer that for the people around you?


Seriously, bananas aren’t even close to the most common fair trade commodity.

But.  Banana suits.

Burning out

Surround yourself with people who can call you out on it, since often you won’t realize it until it’s too late.

And learn to see the different types of burnout.  Sometimes it’s a loss of all motivation; other times everything becomes a crisis; and, maybe the most dangerous of all, is when your default reaction becomes defensiveness instead of curiosity.

Find ways to bring out the best in you

Think of the time when you were the most humble.  Then think of yourself at your most arrogant moment.  (I’m not asking you to tell anyone the story – so be honest).  What were the factors that led to each?  The context?

Repeat that for being constructive, and being defensive.  And any other traits you value (or hate).

Then consciously put yourself in environments that bring out your best.

Value Consistency

EWB, as an organization, biases toward entrepreneurs… not so much the scale-and-implement people.  But learn to value consistency too, and the people who provide it.

Without consistency, even the best idea is just a momentary flash.  Consistency is what fuels patience, and what keeps you from overreacting to everything.

Presentation Matters

Good presentation and execution can save a mediocre idea … but poor presentation and execution will tank even the best of ideas.

The world shouldn’t be like that … but it is.

Momentum trumps critical thought

Everyone is affected by this; even us.  I’ve seen us spend way too much time over-thinking some decisions …. but I have seen an equal number of decisions made without thinking, because there was enough momentum already behind it.

The Reality of Participation

imagesThe opportunity to participate is important, even if no one uses it.  Send out that feedback survey, even if you already know what people are going to say.  Keep asking for comments, even if no one responds.

If you don’t send the invitation, it’s on you.  If no one responds, it’s on them.

The Myth of Consensus

You’ll never reach consensus.  There, I said it.

When you have enough people involved, there will inevitably be someone who disagrees.  You need to accept that, and move forward anyway.  You can’t please everyone all the time, no matter how much you want to or how hard you try.

The trick is learning to separate perpetual complainers from legitimate issues. And then have enough trust to keep everyone on your side, even if everyone doesn’t get their way all the time.

EWB’s existential crisis

1009626_10151648748669927_1126054183_oDo our people (our leaders, our members, “the network”) exist to serve the organization?  Or does the organization exist to serve our people?

To this day, I don’t know the answer.

(to everyone who answered “why can’t it be both”, it can in the good times. but there are also moments where you have to choose one over the other; best to not be blindsided when that happens.)

Self-Indulgent Navel Gazing

Improved processes are important.  In theory, they ensure we work together efficiently.  They ensure fairness and they let us know what to expect.

But taken too far, improving our internal processes – even refining strategy and plans – can become “self-indulgent navel gazing” (I didn’t coin that phrase, but it’s one of my favourites).

When you spend so much effort defining and enforcing processes that you lose sight of the ultimate goal… you’ve gone too far.

Just Be

EWBers have a reputation for being a bit … intense.  But you don’t need to be deep and challenging all the time.

Just… be.62183_478394240882_6538554_n

Ninjas are cool

For the record – the IT Ninjas came before GE Ninjas.

Reply-All is the devil.

(so are meetings that include more people than they need to.)

It’s easy to include everyone in a conversation, but I think it indicates a lack of self-confidence.  It’s a cop-out, shifting responsibility onto the entire group, instead of taking a stand yourself.

Know when you need to solicit broad feedback & buy-in, and when you need to own your decisions.  Then trust everyone else to trust you with it.

Building community… at the top and the bottom

The danger of a small, tight community is that you are never challenged.  Once you surround yourself with like-minded people, it can be easy to tune out the rest of the world.

In EWB, I often saw this in people who “outgrew” certain parts of the organization.  People who saw “basic” conversations as repetitive and boring.  People who avoided talking to new members, and instead retreated into their community of elites because they were more “interesting”.

On that: I call bullshit.

Over planning. Under planning.  And that sweet spot in the middle.

It’s important to have all three: unstructured time, open to unexpected outcomes.  Semi-structured time with flexibility for new opportunities.  And fully structured time, where the blinders go on and you can really focus

You are irreplacable.  You are also completely replaceable.

945064_601887069833068_650372288_nWe are all unique, and we bring our own combination of skills, perspective, and personality to the table.  This goes to our core value of investing in people.

But… don’t let that lead to arrogance and inflated self-worth.  Or the “self conscious over-achiever” trap, feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders.  There is something humbling and liberating with the realization that, despite all the value you bring, the people around you are resourceful and the world can go on without you too.

We really have no idea what we’re doing…

Our direction changes every couple of years, with no real thread holding it all together… we have our common values, but for the most part, we are building the plane as we fly it (thanks, Sal, for discovering that gem!)

… but, you know what, that’s OK.

So what if we are building the plane as we fly it.  It means we aren’t over-analyzing.  It means we are responding, in real-time, to new ideas and learning.  It means we are growing and evolving.

As much as I hate the uncertainty (and, as a planner, I do!), I’d much rather that than stagnation.

And.  Ultimately.  You never really leave EWB.

EWB is not just an organization.  It’s bigger than that.

It’s the experience, the connections, and the shared values.  It’s the thousands of people it has influenced, regardless of whether we are still involved in the formal organization.

EWB will always be part of who I am.  It influenced me in some of my most formative years, and in turn, I have left my mark on the organization and the people in it.  It goes both ways, for each and every member.  That’s the beauty of it.

I am an EWB alumni and an EWB member.  I don’t regret a moment of it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.